Emmanuel Macron's challenge to heal divided France after re-election victory

French president must unite fragile centrist alliance ahead of parliamentary vote in June

Emmanuel Macron beats Marine Le Pen in French presidential elections

Emmanuel Macron beats Marine Le Pen in French presidential elections
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In Emmanuel Macron’s moment of triumph, there were broad smiles, embraces and clenched fists as the newly re-elected French president moved through a crowd of excited supporters beneath the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

But challenging times lie ahead as he attempts to heal the deep wounds and divisions of a fractured, restless country.

In the end, Mr Macron won his second five-year term with a more comfortable majority than polls had predicted, 17 points ahead of his far-right rival, Marine Le Pen.

But less than two months remain before France votes again, to decide the make-up of parliament.

After sweeping to power in 2017, also at Ms Le Pen’s expense but more emphatically than on Sunday, the fresh appeal of a modern, enterprising president gave Mr Macron's centrist La Republique En Marche party (LREM) a landslide victory in the legislative elections.

In June, the LREM faces a stiffer test, the outcome made even less certain by Sunday’s high abstentions — 28 per cent, a reflection of widespread disenchantment with politicians. An unwillingness to choose “between the plague and cholera” became the mantra of countless non-voters.

Ms Le Pen’s National Rally seems too poorly organised across the country to have a serious chance of forming a majority in the Assemblee Nationale in June.

But the far-left France Unbowed leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, who narrowly failed to reach the run-off in the presidential contest, is urging a coalition of left-wing and Green parties. He hopes to become a powerful opposition prime minister, making government a nightmare of “cohabitation” for what is already termed “Macron Season Two”.

In itself, Mr Macron’s win was impressive after five years of perpetual crisis, with the disruptive anti-government Gilets Jaunes (yellow vests) revolt followed by the pandemic and now the rocketing cost of living. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought him a “war bounce”, as he emerged as a key figure in Europe’s response, but this proved short-lived.

His substantial lead over Ms Le Pen had much less to do with approval of his own record than the French electorate’s habit of forming a united front against the extreme right.

Even that “republican barrage” now looks less solid. In her three presidential campaigns, Ms Le Pen has boosted her share of the vote from 18 per cent in 2012 to 41 per cent on Sunday.

Her party blamed pro-Macron media propaganda for denying her what mainstream western opinion would have seen as an alarming outcome. “Even a TV weather girl told us we had to vote Macron,” said a senior National Rally strategist.

Mr Macron’s daunting task, as he acknowledged in his victory speech on Sunday night, is to persuade hostile voters and non-voters he can unite a country split — after the collapse of conventional left and right parties — into three major blocs: the centre and opposing extremes.

He must first choose a reshuffled cabinet and, in particular, a new prime minister should the LREM form the next government alone or in coalition.

He praises the “extraordinary” efforts of Jean Castex, a decent, competent but dour prime minister. But Mr Castex will announce his resignation within a week, to be replaced by a man or woman charged with making ecological change central to his or her duties.

Beyond her harsh programme of populist nationalism, including a ban on headscarves, sweeping immigration curbs and protectionist measures undermining the EU, Ms Le Pen had hoped to win over voters with promised tax cuts and retirement from the age of 60.

Mr Macron denounced her populism and mocked the budgetary “incoherence” of her cost-of-living pledges. He only slightly modified his pension reform plans so that under his presidency, the age of retirement will rise steadily from 62 to 64 by 2027-28, not reaching 65 before 2031.

Perhaps the biggest winner on Sunday was the European Union and its defenders.

As Mr Macron made his way to the stage at the Champs-de-Mar, flanked by wife, Brigitte, and children of campaign workers, the rousing melody of the EU anthem, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, sent defiant messages of European solidarity to Eurosceptics in Hungary and Poland, as well as to Ms Le Pen’s supporters and, possibly, a troublesome neighbour — Boris Johnson and his Brexit government in the UK.

But the true measure of success or failure in the coming five years will be how well he lives up to his commitment to respect those who voted for the far right, or not at all, and prove himself “a president for all”.

Updated: April 25, 2022, 10:52 AM